Yaka headrest, Democratic Republic of the Congo
The iconography of musawu headrests is tied to important aspects of Yaka thought and their subject matter is drawn from the human, animal, and domestic realms. According to Bourgeois (in Falgayrettes-Leveau, Animal, 2007, pp. 299 & 312), the rich bestiary of Yaka art highlights the metaphorical relationship between animal imagery and male identity. “The leopard Ngo […] is rarely sculpted in wood, with the notable exception of its representation in headrests”. It refers symbolically to the person of a chief, and through him to the society of leopard-men (syonnya), used by some land chiefs, or to the ngongi cult, which is dedicated to the spirits of the ancestors.
A headrest such as the Malcolm example was at once a functional and a spiritual object. It was used as a pillow whilst the chief slept, protecting his elaborate (and talismanic) hairstyle and, at the same time, it was a link to the spirits, who communicated with people through their dreams. “[…] headrests were used most especially by male land chiefs (kalaamba) and some matrilineal headmen (lemba) […] as an item of personal property of the dignitary, they often had personal charms attached.” (Bourgeois, Yaka, 2014, p. 119).
Stylistically, this headrest is closely related to the example formerly in the Bela Hein collection (Fraysse et Associés, Paris, 8 December 2004, lot 47). The artist here has transcended the usual formal constraints and used line and volume to create a masterly composition. The leopard headrest from the Malcolm Collection is remarkable both for its elegance and its depiction of feline power. The delicate modelling is accentuated by a nuanced honey-brown patina which attests to the headrest’s prolonged use.
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